These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
“You’ll love it there. The Greeks are so nice.”
A friend who had just left Athens told me this before my arrival in Greece. I was skeptical at first.
My first interaction with a Greek person happened as soon as I had gotten off of the connecting train from the airport into town. My suitcase is big (I’m abroad for four months, after all), but I normally have no problem navigating it through a European city.
This time was no different. Upon leaving a train station, there are sometimes small gates you need to pass through in order to exit. These gates are small and not meant to fit a suitcase. I usually try to fit my suitcase through, and then have to pause and turn it to the side so I can lift it through the gates.
However, right as my suitcase was caught in the gate, I paused to lift it up when I noticed someone behind me. At these moments in time I usually go into anti-pickpocket mode. This time it wasn’t necessary. The man behind me had seen that my luggage didn’t fit, so he gestured to my suitcase, and helped me lift it through the gate.
After he had gotten through the gate, he dropped my luggage and smiled, while I said thank you, and he walked away. It was such a casual but kind thing for a stranger to do. Although I could’ve lifted the suitcase myself, the gesture was such a nice one.
It seems like nothing big, to have a stranger help you with your suitcase. But I’ve been traveling for over two months now, and it’s something that doesn’t happen often. People have busy lives, and not enough time to stop to help a stranger.
I have now been in Athens for a few days, and I’ve noticed that in general, most Athenians seem to have this same kind disposition. When you walk down the street or enter a store, people smile at you. That hasn’t been the case in a lot of other European cities in my experience. Here, bakeries will give you free pastries with your coffee. Restaurants will give you wine on the house. This is because they value their customers and want you to keep coming back.
One other time in particular when I was exploring my new neighborhood here with a few of my classmates, trying to find the nearest school supply store, we ended up having to ask several people for directions along the way. Each time the person was sincere and kind, pointing us in the right direction. In contrast, in Rome we had some bad experiences asking the locals for directions.
This isn’t to say that the people of Rome or any other urban European city are mean. It’s simply to say that my first impression of the Greeks is that they are very kind people. In a few weeks, I may have a very different impression of Athenians and the city. Recognizing these first impressions, and every other impression a city leaves on you throughout your time there, is one of the most important things about travel for me. The great thing is, I have six weeks left here to gather even more impressions of Athens.
Last weekend I, along with some friends, took the train to Berchtesgaden, Germany. When the trip was being organized I was not fully committed, thinking I would spend the weekend in Vienna. My friends driving the effort mainly wanted to go to see sites where the show Band of Brothers was filmed, not something I was particularly driven to pursue. However I eventually agreed thinking at the very least I would have a good weekend in a small Bavarian town.
I do not think I have ever underestimated a trip as much as I did this one. On sunday we visited Königssee, the deepest lake in Germany. A dense morning fog shrouded the lake in mystery, made only more eerie by the music coming from tourist boats plying the misty waters. Advised by a local friend of ours to take the path where there is "danger of life", we hiked along the shore through the fog to a waterfall. The alpine lagoon and water-worn rocks created by the waterfall provided ample fun to climb and stick toes into the frigid water. After a while, wary of the time needed to catch our bus, I dunked myself in the lagoon because I wanted to get all the way in. I had not noticed however, that some of my friends headed down another path to get to the shore of the lake itself. After getting my shoes back on, I ran to catch up, emerging from the forest onto a wonderful rocky beach. The fog had burned off entirely by this point and the lake was bathed in morning sunshine. One friend had jumped in the lake proper (not just the lagoon). Feeling one-upped, and that my hearty Minnesotan blood was threatened, I wanted to jump in too so that I could also claim swimming in the deepest lake in Germany. Unfortunately we had a bus to catch and I recognized that we had a bit of hike to get back. However I was already regretting I did not go in the lake as well, and when my friends were slow to get going down the path, I went for it. I ran straight in and dove into the rapidly deepening water. Not nearly as cold as I had expected it to be, I had an enormous rush of adrenaline and relief that I did not pass up the opportunity at the cost of punctuality. A huge smile on my face and still riding the rush, I got my shoes and jacket on and caught up with the group.
As it turns out we did not miss the bus, or really come that close. Even if we had, there will always be another bus, train or plane, and when there is not you still figure it out. No matter what unexpected adventures happen, you'll have the story. If that had been "that time we got stranded in Berchtesgaden", then that would have been a memory we could have all shared. It is never worth sacrificing the important moments, like swimming in the Königssee, for your preplanned itinerary. After all, those are the experiences that are the purpose of travel. Not punctuality or a schedule. If you can already feel yourself regretting something, stop what you're doing, go back and fix it right then and there. There will never be an easier time to do so. Always take the chance, always jump in.
I’m a self-proclaimed city person, though I’ve never actually lived in one until Rome. Since living here, I’ve realized both that I was right - I love the city feel - and that at the same time, I really miss little things, like fresh air and grass.
While I am absolutely in love with Rome, I really appreciate our weekend excursions as a group to other places (especially those in the countryside). This weekend, our study abroad group visited Assisi, about a 3 hour bus ride north of Rome.
The first thing I noticed about Assisi was the quiet. Seriously. It’s such a tranquil place compared to the hustle and bustle of Rome. It was so nice to not constantly hear car horns blaring, dogs barking, or even just crowds of people talking. And when we walked the streets- gasp- there were no crowds to weave through most of the time. It was refreshing, to say the least.
Assisi is known for being the birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare, so the visit was for my theology class. It is a beautiful place, beautiful in a different way than that of Rome. Less ruins, more rolling hills ‑ although I was still able to visit ruins, those of a castle, while in Assisi (called Rocca Maggiore).
The highlight of the trip was visiting one of the most beautiful basilicas I have ever been to, Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (and I’ve visited more basilicas than I can count while here, so this is a compliment). This is the place of which St. Francis is buried underneath, so pilgrims from all over the world make the trek here just to see his grave. The basilica was built in the early 1200’s, and onto the side of a hill. Beautiful medieval frescos line the walls and ceilings inside.
I would be lying if I said that Assisi didn’t have a touristy feel- it was definitely there, but only on the main street that led to the Basilica of San Francesco. When I say touristy, I mean English-language menus, little stands selling Italian flags and T-shirts on the side of the street. When you live in Rome for a while, you begin to recognize tourist traps, and know how they can be avoided.
But our experience in Assisi- being shown around by a local, eating authentic Italian carbonara on the rooftop of a restaurant only reached by weaving through uphill alleyways in the old part of the town? That didn’t feel touristy one bit.
I probably could’ve stayed in Assisi all week. But, I have Rome (and several final exams) to welcome me back to reality. I have one last week in Rome - and two months left in Europe - and I intend to soak in the rest of the time I have left in this beautiful city.
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